Wave of Campaigns
Time period notes
Methods in 1st segment
Methods in 2nd segment
Methods in 3rd segment
Methods in 4th segment
Methods in 5th segment
Methods in 6th segment
Notes on Methods
Involvement of social elites
Nonviolent responses of opponent
Groups in 1st Segment
Success in achieving specific demands/goals
Notes on outcomes
In the late 1980’s, Poland was nearing the end of almost 40 years of postwar communism as part of the Soviet Eastern Bloc. Out of labor organizing earlier in the decade emerged Solidarność (Solidarity), the first non-communist party-controlled trade union federation in a Warsaw Pact country (see Polish workers general strike for economic rights, 1980). Shortly after the rise of Solidarity, the organization expanded into a larger social movement, appealing for economic reforms, free elections, and increased political participation of trade unions.
By early 1981, Solidarity had a membership of over 10 million people that included almost 80% of the total workforce. That year Solidarity held its first national congress; Lech Walesa, a pivotal figure in the emergence of the union, was elected president.
In spring 1981, after some Solidarity members were beaten up by security forces as part of the Bydgoszcz events, Solidarity organized a four-hour warning strike in late March, involving over 12 million people and regarded as the largest strike in the history of the Soviet Bloc.
That summer, in response to a worsening economy and food shortages, thousands of Poles participated in hunger demonstrations throughout the country. By late 1981, Solidarity announced plans for a strike in anticipation of government repression. Indeed, soon after the announcement, the government declared martial law and initiated a major crackdown. Mass arrests of Solidarity leaders followed; security forces arrested thousands of Solidarity members in the middle of the night. Censorship and military presence increased. Even still, hundreds of isolated strikes and occupations occurred throughout the country. In the midst of these actions, government forces opened fire on demonstrators, killing some and injuring many. By the end of December 1981, strikes had ended.
On October 8, 1982, the government formally banned Solidarity, rendering the organization illegal. Solidarity was forced underground. Anti-government protest demonstrations and strikes resumed throughout 1982, along with more killings of demonstrators. During its time underground, Solidarity received funds, equipment, and support from varied members of the international community including international solidarity organizations, U.S. President Ronald Reagan, the C.I.A., the Catholic Church, and Western trade unions such as the AFL-CIO.
In December 1982, Security Forces carried out a large crackdown, arresting over 10,000 members and seizing the organization’s assets. By this time, the underground Solidarity had over 70,000 members and was publishing underground newspapers.
During July 1983, martial law was lifted, and amnesty was granted to many imprisoned Solidarity members. However, heightened controls on civil and political life remained in place for years to come. It’s estimated that between 1981 and 1985, around 78 people were killed by police and security force action; thousands more were imprisoned, beaten, and harassed.
On March 11, 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev assumed power in the Soviet Union, bringing a new generation of Soviet party members and political and economic reforms, affecting all Soviet satellites.
In late 1986, another group of Polish political prisoners were released, freeing most all Solidarity members arrested during the previous years. Shortly after, Lech Walesa helped create the Temporary Council of NSZZ Solidarność, the first legal Solidarity entity since martial law was declared. Many local Solidarity groups emerged from underground and a national committee was formed late 1987. Solidarity members and activists were still threatened with repression, but it marked a new era for the organization. Also around this time, a more radically anti-communist faction, Fighting Solidarity splintered from the leadership of Walesa.
By 1988, Poland’s economy was in dire conditions. International sanctions and government unwillingness to introduce reforms compounded previous problems. In February, the government increased food prices by 40%.
On April 21, a wave of strikes occurred throughout the country. They began in Stalowa Wola, with workers demanding higher wages and the end to the persecution of Solidarity. Strikes spread to the city transport department in Bydgoszcs, and later to iron and steel works in Nowa Huta; security forces and police responded with beatings and arrests.
Also on the 21st, several hundred students demonstrated at Wroclaw University in support of the trade unions and on behalf of the Independent Students’ Association (NZS), the student sub-organization of Solidarity formed in 1980, and also banned in 1981.
At the end of April, Lech Walesa released a statement appealing to ruling authorities to negotiate, to the international trade union movement to offer support, and to governments of democratic countries to politically and economically oppose the injustices carried out by the Polish government.
On the first day in May, demonstrations took place in several cities, leading to several dozen arrests. The next day, workers at the Gdańsk Shipyard began a sit-in strike. In addition to economic demands (wage increase) were added political demands concerning Solidarity, including the legal recognition of the organization and the release of political prisoners. Government forces broke the strike on May 10, after which Walesa and Solidarity leader, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, led a march to the Church of Saint Brygida.
During the Gdańsk strike, on May 4, NZS supporters demonstrated at the Catholic University of Lublin. Action soon spread to other academic institutions and sectors of society. For example, on June 22, bus drivers in Szczecin went on strike in support of labor leaders.
On August 15, a mass strike was organized at the July Manifesto mine in Jastrzębie Zdrój, involving thousands; the strike lasted until September 3. By August 20, the strike had spread to many other mines and cities. Strikers chanted, ‘There’s no liberty without Solidarity!’ On the 17th, the Inter-Enterprise Strike Committee (Solidarity) released a list of demands including: the legalization of Solidarity, economic reforms, wage justice, collective bargaining rights, safety and health standards, and the right to organize.
On August 22, the largest strike of the month began in Huta Stalowa Wola. Out of the strike grew a large demonstration of more than 20,000 people. The Gdańsk Shipyard joined the strike as well; soon strikes and protests were being held in the provinces of Warsaw, Gdansk, Katowice, Poznan, Wroclaw, Tarnobrzeg, and Walbrzych.
By late August, Poland’s communist government expressed a willingness to negotiate, as long as the strikes were stopped. On August 31, the eight anniversary of the original Gdansk Agreement, the Interior Minister formally received Lech Walesa for negotiations. Afterward, Walesa called an end to the strikes, claiming it an important step to the re-legalization of Solidarity. The strikes ended, although reluctantly by many strikers, over the next few days.
Further action was stalemated over the next months as both government bodies and Solidarity representatives prepared for long-term negotiations. In fact in mid-September negotiations collapsed because Solidarity would not yield its demands for legalization and it rejected the authorities’ right to veto its selection of delegates to take part in roundtable talks.
Some sympathetic actions did take place. In early October, signs were hung at Warsaw University supporting the legalization of Solidarity and recognition of NZS. Throughout the month, student organizing spread to other campuses, and included anti-military action.
Early November, government authorities closed the Gdańsk Shipyard, which was seen as an insult to Solidarity and an attempt to crush morale. Thousands demonstrated against the decision. Later that month, Lech Walesa scored a ‘public relations victory’ during a televised debate between him and a leader of the All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions (OPZZ), a pro-government trade union.
In mid December, a hundred-member Citizens’ Committee was formed within Solidarity. It was made up of several sections, each related to a specific demand being made of the government. A majority of the Committee members advocated negotiation, whereas a minority wanted an anticommunist revolution and were open to the use of violence.
On February 6, 1989, the Polish Round Table talks began, bringing members of Solidarity, OPZZ, priests, and communists party members together for negotiation. Throughout the talks, a number of opposition groups including NZS, the Confederation for an Independent Poland, and the Federation of Fighting Youth began a series of demonstrations in Krakow, which lasted a week before being broken up.
In April 1989, the results of the negotiations were announced. The government agreed to legalize Solidarity and allow it to participate in free elections for Polish parliament. The government announced an economic plan, promised more freedom for the media, and ensured freedom of association. Elections were set for June 4. Even though they had minimal resources Solidarity quickly organized an electoral campaign.
In May, a series of Solidarity parades took place. The largest in Warsaw had nearly 100,000 participants. Rallies and marches were also held by Fighting Solidarity in several cities, advocating a boycott of the elections.
On May 8, a new pro-Solidarity newspaper was started called the Gazeta Wyborcza (The Election Gazette) to support the Solidarity campaign. Strike actions also continued. In Lubinski, 35,000 copper miners organized a sit-in strike, demanding wage justice and a meeting with the minister of industry.
In the elections that June, Solidarity candidates won 99 of the 100 seats in the newly formed Senate and all seats they were eligible to run for in the Sejm (lower house) (161 seats out of 460 total). The results came as a total surprise in comparison to pre-election polls. The total victory of Solidarity candidates in these elections would inspire a wave of nonviolent anti-communist revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe.
Later in June, the newly formed Solidarity Citizens' Parliamentary Club (Obywatelski Klub Parliamentarny "Solidarność") formed a coalition with parties formerly affiliated with the communist majority. For the first time, communist party members were outnumbered. On August 24, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a Solidarity representative, was elected Prime Minister of Poland, who became the first non-communist prime minister in Eastern Europe for almost four decades. By the end of the month, a Solidarity-led coalition government was formed.
In December 1990, Walesa was elected president. It was the end of the communist governmental system in Poland. Into the 1990s, Solidarity gradually lost its influence as a political party, but did become one of the largest trade unions in Poland. Solidarity’s example in 1989 influenced the spread of anti-communist ideas and organizing throughout the Eastern Bloc, weakening communist governments and ultimately causing them to fall.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Communist governments throughout Europe began to topple. Solidarity’s success in 1989 in setting up the first non-Communist government in the Soviet Eastern Bloc inspired surrounding states to take similar action (see Soviet Bloc Independence Campaigns (1989-)).
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